What Is an Ancient Chinese Compass?

The earliest compass, dating back to China's Han dynasty, was a spoon-shaped apparatus made of magnetite. These compasses were likely a divination tool rather than a navigation aide.

Early Chinese compasses were made of a type of ore called magnetite. Magnetite is a natural iron oxide and is the most naturally magnetic mineral on the planet. Highly magnetic pieces of magnetite are called lodestone and have been used in compasses since ancient times.

A very early compass from the Han dynasty era of China uses magnetite shaped like a large spoon and placed on a brass plate, called a heaven-plate. This plate was engraved with the eight trigrams of the I-Ching, a divination system similar to geomancy. Geomancy is the use of elements of the earth in divination or decision-making. Also engraved on the heaven-plate were 24 directions, based on constellations, and 28 lunar mansions. These elaborate compasses aided diviners in determining the appropriate time and place for important events, such as burials or ceremonies.

The purely practical, secular uses of these early compasses were also recognized. Jade collectors sometimes used a compass to avoid becoming lost in their travels.

The idea behind these first compasses was to achieve harmony between actions, events and the environment. Principles of this harmony are still used today, even in the Western world. Modern feng shui uses many of the same ideas espoused in the use of the lodestone and heaven-plate.